January 22, 2011 · 2:59 pm
Oh, yeah. “King Salmon.” In my book, Halibut Rodeo. In my first entry about this story, posted oh so many months ago, I wrote about the my admiration of Raymond Carver, and how the short story master influenced so many of us in MFA programs during the 80s. (Many critics were none too pleased about that influence.) “King Salmon” came about because I felt the need to tell more of the Slime Line Queen’s story, since a number of early readers of my work really liked her. She’s not the protagonist, however. Instead, the story is told from the viewpoint of an ex who still lives in the Lower 48. “King Salmon” contains a story within a story. The narrator, a recovering alcoholic, tells his sponsor about his past relationship with the Slime-Line Queen, and his vain attempt to travel to Homer, Alaska to win her back. The middle part of the story is his account of that trip. He does find the Slime-Line Queen at the Salty Dawg Saloon. (The Salty Dawg Saloon is real, by the way. This past summer my brother Mike ordered t-shirts from there.) Later, the narrator ends up on Homer Spit beach to fish, where he catches a .
20 pound King Salmon.
While the rest of the story comes straight from my imagination, the catching of the fish is based on experience. Fairly early during the salmon season, I had an evening off from Seward Fisheries. John Calhoun, Sr., my gracious host for the summer, as well as mayor of Homer, took his son and I snagging on the beach. You don’t use bait for snagging, just a barbed hook. Kachemak Bay is so thick with spawning salmon you can toss a line out into the bay, snap your wrist, and hook yourself a big-ass fish. Like the narrator in the story, I did just that. We weren’t at it very long, less than an hour perhaps. After John schooled me on the technique he left me to my own devices. He had never snagged a salmon before, but assured me it could be done. I was dubious. I had never heard of this kind of fishing. But sure enough, I snagged one. I don’t know how long it took to bring in the fish, but it was at least twenty minutes. By the end the tide had come in and I was standing in water. In my mind’s eye right now I see John splashing through ankle deep water net in hand. He scooped up the fish, grinning from ear to ear, and said it was 20 pounds easy.
We took it back to his garage, gutted it, and sliced it into steaks. Over the next week, day after day before going to work to clean salmon for 12 hours a pop, I scarfed down the steaks drenched in the hollandaise sauce Hans whipped up. Did I tire of salmon? Hell no! According to Anthony Bourdain, professional chefs like to ask themselves what they’d eat for their last meal if they ever find themselves on Death Row.
Me? I want one of those salmon steaks.
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Tagged as Alaska, Anthony Bourdain, fishing, Halibut Rodeo, Homer, MFA programs, Raymond Carver, salmon, salmon fishing, Salty Dawg Saloon, Seward Fisheries, short stories
September 6, 2010 · 5:38 pm
In the 1980’s Raymond Carver was the scourge of creative writing professors. It’s not that they necessarily had anything against the short story master; it’s just that too many of their students tried to imitate him. Early in his career Carver was labeled a “minimalist.” His style is sparse and deceptively simple. He uses few figures of speech, and very little description. Many of his stories are “dialogue heavy.” Critics threw him into the same camp as Hemingway, the other end of the spectrum from Lessing or Pynchon. Writing students ate him up. He just seemed so easy. Carver never embraced the term “minimalist.” He wasn’t into that “tip of the iceberg thing” Hemingway went on about. He maintained that his “simple” style was an attempt to recreate the limited viewpoint of an alcoholic. Like their creator, many early Carver protagonists struggled with substance abuse. They wouldn’t bother to “see” a setting, or specific details. Their minds are too preoccupied with the daily battle with the bottle.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the typical protagonist showing his junk in a creative writing workshop wasn’t an alcoholic. Students attempted to emulate Carver’s style for no other reason than it seemed easy. But like modern painting, it’s not as simple as it looks. MFA programs started churning out “cookie cutter” stories, composed by “cookie cutter” writers. In 1989, C. Michael Curtis, then fiction editor for The Atlantic Monthly, visited my fiction workshop at Wichita State and implored us not to follow suit. (MFA programs are still accused of producing an endless stream of writers that all sound the same.)
I like to think I took Curtis’s advice to heart. Still, I love Carver, and there are glimpses of my admiration of him in Halibut Rodeo. Stylistically, “A Man Loves His Cat” comes closest to a Carveresque story. But I pay most conscious homage to him in “King Salmon.” This story within a story recounts one man’s relationship with the Slime-Line Queen. Like many of Carver’s protagonists he is a recovering alcoholic. At the beginning, he invites his sponsor over for a meal of King Salmon. While they’re eating, I adopt the tone Carver uses in the dinner scene in “Cathedral,” justifiably his most famous story. After the two men devour the fish, the protagonist relates his attempt to win back the Slime-Line Queen by driving from North Dakota to Homer, Alaska, diamond ring in tow. Like so many of Carver’s anti-heroes, he doesn’t achieve his goal. True understanding is often just out of reach for Carver’s characters. The Slime Line Queen becomes an almost mystical character in the book, despite her harsh past. For many readers of the book she is a favorite character, even though she never appears as protagonist. Maybe even for me, her creator, she’s beyond full comprehension.
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Tagged as Alaska, ATTMP, C. Michael Curtis, Halibut Rodeo, Homer, literature, minimalism, Raymond Carver, short stories, The Atlantic Monthly, The Slime-Line Queen. King Salmon